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'It seems to be that we like our comedians clean and our politicians dirty'

Owen McCafferty’s new play is about a comedian selling his soul.

Teenage Cancer Trust Comedy Concert - London Tommy Tiernan Source: Press Association Images

‘We live in a society where it seems to be nowadays that we like our comedians clean and our politicians dirty’ – Owen McCafferty

COMEDIANS COME IN all forms – from the pack-out-large-venue successes like Michael McIntyre, to the acerbic wit of Tommy Tiernan, to the more niche fandom gathered by outsiders like Tom Key.

In Ireland, we’re fostering our own cabal of talented funny men and women, guffawing at comics such as Eleanor Tiernan, Al Porter and Maeve Higgins.

Like most creative forms, what tends to bring a comedian from dingy clubs to big theatres is an ability to craft material that appeals to the masses.

But if a comedian wants to be a success, do they have to shrug off their edgier side, and make a Robert Johnson-style deal with the proverbial devil at the crossroads?

Death of a comedian

Brian Doherty (Comedian) and Shaun Dingwall (Agent) in Death of a Comedian by Owen McCafferty Pic Ros Kavanagh Brian Doherty (Comedian) and Shaun Dingwall (Agent) Source: Ros Kavanagh

That’s the premise of Owen McCafferty’s latest play, Death of a Comedian, which examines how one comedy maker climbs to the apex of his career. It can be seen on the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock stage until 4 April.

“I’ve always had a fascination with comedians,” Northern Irish playwright McCafferty told TheJournal.ie.

When you see them perform, what is it that drives them on? Is it that they have a message to give out, or is it in a sense the amount of applause they get?
It was then looking at the idea that in order to become successful you might have to change your material; and if you change your material, is that making you less of an artist even though you are getting bigger audiences?

Death of a Comedian – which is McCafferty’s follow-up to Quietly – is about stand-up comic Steve Johnston, played by Brian Doherty (who was chosen because of his ability to tell a joke), and follows as he performs four shows at different points in his career.

As his girlfriend Maggie (Katie McGuinness) tries to insist he can and should remain true to his values, his agent Don Wright (Shaun Dingwell), offers him a Faustian pact that Johnston is powerless to resist.

As the limelight pulls Johnston in, the audience witnesses his set transform. Gradually, the edges are rubbed off him.

“It’s about a stand-up comic, but in a way in my head that could be any artform in the commercial world,” said McCafferty.

Do you have to sell a bit of your honesty, or whatever it is that drives you, in order to appeal to more people? And if you do that, what happens?

McCafferty said he’s not “at any second telling people what they should or shouldn’t be laughing at”, but that the whole subject fascinates him.

It seems reasonable, he said, that if you want to be a success you will do what it takes.

But at what cost?

Changing faces

(L-R) Katie McGuinness, Shaun Dingwall and Brian Doherty in Owen McCafferty's new play Death of a Comedian on Abbey Theatre's Peacock stage Pic Ros Kavanagh (L-R) Katie McGuinness, Shaun Dingwall and Brian Doherty

Steve Johnston begins telling lies in his set, in order to give his audiences what he thinks they want.

In the first gig, he’s “honest, edgy, political”. By the final gig, he’s “bland… he’s not funny”. He’s far less anti-establishment than in the early days.

McCafferty explores the notion that “if your aim now is solely to make people laugh, you have lost something”.

He’s not criticising popular comedians, and emphasises that it isn’t a conundrum that he has faced.

I don’t write very commercial plays really, so I haven’t ever been confronted [with it], or that carrot of huge success hasn’t been dangled in front of me, so I’ve never had to make that decision.

Authentic or not

Regarding the authenticity of comedians, McCafferty noted how “we want them to be the real deal”, though that can sometimes lead to inauthenticity – as when Steve lies on stage.

“I think part of it as well is we live in a society where it seems to be nowadays that we like our comedians clean and our politicians dirty,” he ventured.

It’s not a conspiracy theory, he said, but added: “it does suit the Government to be left alone to get on with stuff if people fill vast arenas and make people laugh about dunking biscuits, as opposed to being anti-establishment”.

Brian Doherty (Comedian) in Death of a Comedian by Owen McCafferty Pic Ros Kavanagh Brian Doherty

In the play, Johnston goes from attacking the government of the day in his routine to mainly talking about relationships.

As a writer, McCafferty found the process of writing a comedic set an interesting challenge.

“In a way it was sort of easier at the start than it was at the end, because his comedy at the start is more akin to what I would find funny and his comedy at the end isn’t,” he said. “That’s not that I didn’t attempt to make it funny, I did. I couldn’t use myself to gauge if it was funny – I had to guess.”

Although the play is topical, McCafferty said that he “wasn’t attempting to tap into the zeitgest”.

Unlike his character, he creates work honestly – no Faustian pacts needed.

Death of a Comedian is on the Peacock stage at the Abbey Theatre until 4 April. Tickets are €18 – €25, concessions €13-€18.

Read: What should you go see at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival?>

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